State Sovereignty at Its Most Basic: Control of Land
State sovereignty at its most basic is the ability of a state to control its own land. Earlier this month, 95 state and locally elected officials joined a variety of experts from 14 states in Salt Lake City to draft and ratify a statement calling for land currently held by the federal government to be transferred to the states. Officials at the summit included Alaska’s Lieutenant Governor Mead Treadwell; Utah Speaker of the House Becky Lockhart and state Senator Jennifer Fielder of Montana.
The statement, which was ratified unanimously at the gathering, calls for the federal government to honor the agreement it made with all states upon their establishment to transfer public land over to them. To date, that agreement has only been honored for states east of Colorado.
This is an old problem that is rapidly gaining momentum. The federal government held the lands that would become the United States of America in trust, but agreed to transfer control in a timely fashion as this land had been apportioned to establish states. While land control in Eastern states, where the federal government manages only three to four percent of land, was successful, the federal government failed to transfer management of land in Western states. The federal government controls over 50 percent of the landmass in Western states, and in states like Nevada, the percentage is far higher.
The signatories to the public policy statement point out that states can manage their lands more responsibly and productively than the federal government. They also argue that, contrary to the claims of environmental activists, there is little incentive for states to sell off public lands because of the Statehood Enabling Acts. The Enabling Acts require that 95 percent of the proceeds from federal land sales must be deposited in the national treasury.
There is also an economic incentive to land transference. Lt. Gov. Treadwell remarked that Canada’s Yukon and Northwest territories now control lands previously held by the Canadian federal government, making it difficult for Alaska’s energy industry to compete with Canadian energy producers that can offer consumers more certainty.
The cost to the states of the federal government’s mismanagement goes beyond revenue, presenting an environmental and safety hazard as well. For instance, the signatories cited numerous instances where federally managed forest land has been allowed to grow unchecked, presenting a regional wildfire hazard.
National parks, Indian Reservations, Military Posts and congressionally designated wilderness areas are excluded from the Statement’s requested transfer.
Eastern states also have a stake in this issue. During the post-Summit press conference, Rep. Alan Clemmons (R-SC) observed that the federal government manages the public lands at a loss, meaning that all American taxpayers ultimately pay for federal mismanagement.
Control over land is one of the most fundamental rights of the states. No entity exercises better stewardship over the land than the citizens who live there and know it best. It is time for the federal government to honor its promise to transfer control of public lands to the respective states.